A day after a storm in the Punjab government surrounding Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh, the Punjab government divested him of his additional charge of Financial Commissioner (Taxation) late on Tuesday evening.
A Venu Prasad, Principal Secretary (water resources, mines and geology) and CMD, PSTCL, was given the additional charge of Financial Commissioner (Taxation). As Prasad is on casual leave till May 20, Finance Secretary Anirudh Tewari has been asked to officiate in his place till then.
On Monday, CM’s Advisor Amrinder Singh Raja Warring had alleged that the CS must come clean on his son’s alleged involvement in liquor trade. He had alleged that there was a conflict of interest between additional responsibility as Financial Commissioner (Taxation) and his son’s alleged business links with liquor trade.
Interestingly, the order of relieving Karan Avtar Singh from Excise Department, was issued by the Chief Secretary.
While the government moved swiftly amid those ‘conflict of interest’ allegations, Karan Avtar Singh went about his business as usual as the state’s Chief Secretary. He attended office Tuesday and also held a meeting with DCs and SSPs through a video link.
Punjab Cabinet ministers had on Monday unanimously refused to attend any meeting that will have Karan Avtar Singh as its part. The charge against Singh was led by Finance Minister Manpreet Badal, who was backed by other ministers, over the CS’s behaviour at Saturday’s Cabinet meet that discussed giving relief to liquor contractors.
According to sources, as the pressure was building on the government to take action, the government Tuesday decided divesting the CS of the charge of Financial Commissioner (Taxation).
Sources close to Chief Minister said that to further defuse situation the government was adopting a wait-and-watch-policy and working on a compromise formula to get Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal and Technical Education Minister Charanjeet Singh Channi on board to bury the hatchet with the CS. It is learnt that a few emissaries of the Chief Minister had approached both the ministers. Sources added that in this case, the CS has put in 36 years of service and his “unceremonious exit”, if insisted upon by ministers, would not come easy.
A 1984-batch IAS officer, who has a postgraduate degree from a top US university and has been non-controversial officer before this row, Karan Avtar Singh was handpicked by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to be the Chief Secretary of the state in March 2017. He is set to retire in August this year.
Even after the Cabinet meeting on Monday, he was with the Chief Minister during his video-conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi from 3 pm to 9 pm Monday, before being back in the office on Tuesday.
Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is known to back the officials to the hilt. Congress leaders in the state often take on the government and the bureaucracy over the issue. It is being felt that if the CM sacrifices a Chief Secretary-level officer to politicians’ will, it would open a can of worms for him.
“Only in the Cabinet meeting yesterday, as ministers were speaking against the CS, the Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu also sought transfer of Health Secretary Anurag Aggarwal from the department, at the forefront of fight against Covid-19. The CM told him that this was not the time to transfer the senior-most official of the health department when the state was fighting pandemic,” a source said.
Also, a senior Congress leader said it was not difficult to break the unity of the ministers who so far appeared to be together on the issue. He added the way Manpreet Badal was being seen as a crusader against the Cabinet Secretary, many of his Cabinet colleagues do not want him to emerge a leader in this scenario.
“If CS goes, he becomes a hero. Why would some dyed-in-wool-Congress leaders want that considering that Badal joined the Congress only a few years ago?” argued the leader.
If the government is able to tide over this crisis without having to sacrifice the CS, it would not be the first time. The CM is known to manage his colleagues getting them to toe his line even though the murmurs of discontent are often heard. Pushing former Cabinet Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu to the sidelines is a case in point.
While the Congress unit of the state stayed quiet on the issue on Tuesday, only former PPCC chief Partap Singh Bajwa tweeted to Chief Minister alleging a government-contractor nexus. “Since the government has failed to meet the excise targets, the only answer is that there is something wrong within the department. I fear a government-contractor nexus has formed and this should be probed immediately.”
The opposition too jumped into the debate with SAD calling the faceoff between the CS and ministers a “constitutional crisis”.
SAD chief demanded a probe by a sitting judge of Punjab and Haryana High Court to “ascertain whether Chief Secretary is right or the Cabinet ministers are right”.
He also asked Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh to “resign if he cannot provide leadership”.
“If the Chief Secretary is guilty, then it cannot stop merely at his removal from office. Then, the government must dare to dismiss him, and book him under the relevant provisions of law. But if, conversely, the ministers are angry with him because he is opposing their corruption, then the minister or ministers must be sacked immediately, booked and tried in a court of law. It is not a family affair that things can be sorted by someone refusing to sit with someone or the other. Only a legal course can remove confusion… Someone out of the two is guilty….It is a constitutional crisis” said the former deputy CM.
Minutes of Cabinet meet: No mention of CS row
In the minutes of the Monday’s Cabinet meeting, the Department of Coordination has only recorded that the ministers authorised the CM to take a call on the amendment in excise policy. The minutes, however, do not mention the protest by the ministers against the CS. The minutes have been sent to CMO for approval. —(With Inputs from ENS, Chandigarh)
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